Having seen its star wane in Iraq, al Qaeda has staged a comeback in neighbouring Syria, posing a dilemma for the opposition fighting to remove President Bashar al-Assad and making the West balk at military backing for the revolt.
The rise of al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, al-Nusra Front, which the United States designated a terrorist organisation last week, could usher in a long and deadly confrontation with the West, and perhaps Israel.
Inside Syria, the group is exploiting a widening sectarian rift to recruit Sunnis who saw themselves as disenfranchised by Assad’s Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shia Islam that dominates Syria’s power and security structures. Al-Nusra appears to have gained popularity in a country that has turned more religious as the uprising, mainly among Sunni Muslims, has been met with increasing force by authorities. It has claimed responsibility for spectacular and deadly bombings in Damascus and Aleppo, and its fighters have joined other rebel brigades in attacks on Assad’s forces.
According to Site Intelligence group, Nusra claimed responsibility in one day alone last month for 45 attacks in Damascus, Deraa, Hama and Homs provinces that reportedly killed dozens, including 60 in a single suicide bombing.
“In 18 communiqués issued on jihadist forums ... most of which contain pictures of the attacks, the al-Nusra Front claimed ambushes, assassinations, bombings and raids against Syrian security forces and ‘shabbiha’, pro-Bashar al-Assad thugs,” Site said.
Members of the group interviewed by Reuters say al-Nusra aims to revive the Islamic Caliphate, which dates back to the Prophet Mohammad’s seventh century companions, forerunners of the large empire that once stretched into Europe.
That prospect alarms many in Syria, from minority Christians, Alawites and Shi’ites to traditionally conservative but tolerant Sunni Muslims who are concerned that al-Nusra would try to impose Taliban-style rule.
Fear of religion-based repression has already prompted Kurds to barricade their quarter of Aleppo city and was behind fierce clashes between Kurdish and al-Nusra fighters in the border town of Ras al Ain in November.
The ideas of al-Nusra are also at odds with a new Syrian opposition coalition that was recognised last week by dozens of countries as an alternative to Assad and is committed to establishing a democratic alternative to Assad’s rule.
Opposition sources said many Syrians who facilitated the transfer of jihadis from Syria to al Qaeda in Iraq at the height of its campaign against US forces there were now fighting for Nusra, while jihadis in Iraq had reversed their roles, arranging for transfer of personnel and bomb-making know-how into Syria.
The source of Nusra funding is unclear, though that, too, may come from Iraq.